A new Wagner opera – how exciting is that? Well, obviously it’s not new, but it’s one of the steadily diminishing group that I’ve neither played nor heard before (apart from the overture and the Holder Abendstern aria). Although a friend kindly lent me her CDs of it (virtuously legal, pleasingly retro, and an excuse to meet up in person for some boozes), I decided not to familiarise with the music in advance, but just read a brief synopsis to have some idea of what the thing was about, and let the music work its magic on ears clean of prior expectations. This was a good thing, I think, as when the overture started, my second thought (after ‘aah, what a great tune that is’) was ‘ooh, that’s a slow tempo to take it – but I like it’. One doesn’t always want one’s brain to be running comparisons, which can be a tendency for those of an analytic bent. It’s quite enough that I literally cannot hear orchestral music without a part of my brain monitoring what the flute section is doing, and my ears pricking up in particular at the sound of a piccolo (which in this case – unsurprisingly, it being Wagner – was not very often, but nevertheless very nicely played, Mr Rowson).
So, entirely sans comparisons, I enjoyed the musical side of the performance immensely. The tempi may or may not have continued on the slow side, but never lacked energy or intensity, with particular credit going to the cello section for warmth and roundness of tone, and the horn section for impressively accurate articulation in faster rhythmic sections; there was also excellent balance and synchronisation between pit and offstage groups. The singing was also generally of a very high standard. Johan Botha displayed a glorious ringing heldentenor, which almost made it plausible that both human women and goddesses might fall in love with him on the strength of his singing alone, despite his lack of any other charms whatsoever. Eva Maria Westbroek’s voice has grown still more in strength and richness of tone since I last heard her, and she sounded superb, if a little deranged even before she decides to spend every day lying in the mud until dying of Being Very Sad disease (or possibly hypothermia). The one voice on stage that really hit my resonant frequencies, however, was Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram – a wonderful sound every time he opened his mouth. Of the other voices, all were decent except one – the awful shepherd boy. What with it being a child, I won’t include his name, but unless this scene is an example of Wagner’s experimentation with microtonality (of which I was not aware), the tuning was way off, and not helped by an unpleasant whiny tone. It’s true, there’s very few boys’ voices I find pleasant, but they do exist – such as the kids in Turn of the Screw and Pelleas. And if a competent brat can’t be found, why not just use a small boyish-looking soprano in the Anna Grevelius mould?
Now, the production. Tannhäuser kicks off with a ballet set in the domain of Venus, the goddess of Sex and Pies. Rather than depict this through something obvious like an orgy, Venus’s nymphs change into a sensible sports kit of vest and little black shorts, to do a strenuous exercise routine involving a lot of running circuits, lifting chairs and jumping over the dinner table, although they do keep getting distracted and start jumping on their buff personal trainers instead. It’s probably a good alternative way (other than all the sex) to work off the calories from Venus’s divine pies. Tannhäuser apparently likes the pies a great deal, but less so the exercise regime, as he just sits and watches them at it. Obviously Venus (Michaela Schuster, not in sports kit, but looking elegant in a black sparkly evening gown – although not as sexy as Bryn Terfel did when he wore the same one in Faust) doesn’t want to lose her favourite singer, but off he stomps. The entrance/exit to the Venusberg (which could be translated as ‘mound of Venus’) is, appropriately, depicted by two large red velvet curtains, which open and close when she chooses to admit someone to enter her realm. They hang between a vajazzled gold arch, in a perfect replica of the proscenium arch and curtains just in front, making me now associate the ROH stage with a huge set of ladyparts.
So, the Real World is derelict and filthy, but everyone welcomes Tannhäuser back home and seems really pleased to see him, presumably because the town is all out of quality heldentenors (as it’s hardly going to be for his personality). In Act 2, Christianity seems to have taken a lead over Paganism, Venus is out of favour and her velvet curtains have been tipped (Sorry.) and are looking all old and raggedy on the floor, where everyone treads them underfoot – a metaphor for this culture’s attitude to sexual womanhood? The people decide to have a song competition to cheer everyone up (and to be fair to the Wartburgers’ gender politics, the young soprano is only required to present the prize to the winning man, whereas if they were Nuremburgers she’d be the prize). Unfortunately the menfolk all get over-aggressive about it and start fighting. Tannhäuser starts the trouble, but they way they react, you’d think he’d suggested pissing in their sparkling spring water rather than just having a drink from it. He is, though, at his most unpleasant, disdaining the community’s sincerely-held moral views and, essentially baiting them with ‘I’ve done it with Venus, ner ner, you haven’t, so what do you know?’ Sadly the townsmen are equally intolerant of his more liberated attitude to human sexuality, and are not helped in their argument by appearing confused about various aspects of it: Is Venus an actual properly-existing rival goddess or is she a demon pretending to be one? Is the Venusberg equivalent to the Christian Hell? (It certainly doesn’t seem like it, what with the endless delightful sex with immortal nymphs.) Is this so-called Hell full of pleasures or full of horrors? (They describe it both ways.) This could be read in the context of the misogynistic patriarchal culture of the time and place: Women’s genitalia are a matter for disgust and no respectable person would have anything to do with the mound of Venus, let alone enjoy it; any free expression and enjoyment of sexuality among consenting adults is to be feared; and Hell is any domain where a powerful female is boss.
All that said, at the time, the music was really all that mattered, and Act 3 in particular was utterly exhilarating. I may not have found everyone convincing in their roles, wasn’t particularly taken with the visuals, and didn’t have a brilliant view of them anyway from the Upper Slips (although of course, the acoustic was perfect), but at the end I could have happily shut my eyes and listened to it all over again.
Two last points, coming from subsequent discussions with others about this opera:
1) It’s interesting that Venus has greater capacity for forgiveness than the Pope (and Popes forgive all sorts of unpleasant crimes, which I don’t think I need to go into here).
2) Wolfram sings the beautiful ode ‘O du mein holder Abendstern’. Abendstern = Evening Star, i.e., the planet Venus. Why is he singing about her?